MATTHEWS: Sending mixed messages on gatherings, social distancing is a really bad look for state officials

N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen briefs media at the Emergency Operations Center. Photo via NC Dept. of Public Safety

At its highest point, there were crowd estimates of between 6,000 and 15,000 in one day for the protest marches in Charlotte that took place last week in the aftermath of the death of North Carolina native George Floyd.

Floyd died in police custody on May 25 after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, according to the criminal complaint. For nearly three of those minutes, Floyd became unresponsive.


Floyd’s death provoked understandable outrage across the country from people of all colors and political persuasions.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) even got in on the marching at one point, walking outside the Executive Mansion in Raleigh along with protesters. His protective mask was pulled well away from his face as he smiled for the cameras and commiserated with marchers in a group of more than 25 people, some of whom were standing less than 6 feet away from him.

Under Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan, outdoor gatherings are limited to no more than 25 people. There are First Amendment exceptions to that, which protests like we saw last week clearly would fall under.

But even with those allowances, it states plainly in the Phase 2 FAQ that protesters are “strongly encouraged to follow the Three Ws, and should avoid congregating in groups.”

The “three Ws” are wearing a face mask, “waiting” 6 feet apart (social distancing) and washing hands frequently. Masks are being worn at protests to varying degrees but the social distancing guidelines are most definitely not being observed.

While state officials have mildly expressed “concern” about the possibility that we could see a coronavirus outbreak from these protests, it’s a far cry from how Reopen protesters were treated in late April and early May when they marched in support of reopening the state so people could get back to work to support their families.

State officials like Cooper and NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen treated the Reopen marchers as though they were a dangerous public health threat, and irresponsible with what they were advocating. Some Reopen marchers were arrested, too — for disobeying Cooper’s executive order, which called for social distancing in group settings.

Pro-life counselors in Charlotte were also arrested outside of abortion clinics — for failure to social distance and for gathering in an outdoor setting in a group of more than 10, which was the outdoor gathering limit at the time.

Now, it’s suddenly “legal” to march again in North Carolina, and to do so in close quarters. Marchers can hold hands, share a bullhorn, form close prayer circles, embrace each other, and even stand inches (not 6 feet) away from a police officer in defiance.

Apparently, there are no longer serious concerns about the spread of the virus. State health officials say they are prepared to handle an outbreak should one come from all the marches over the last week.

Judging by the information available on the NCDHHS website in late April, they would have been able to handle an outbreak that came from the much smaller Reopen protests, but that’s not how they presented it to the public. People exercising their First Amendment rights at the time were subjected to ridicule and scolding from these same people.

The mixed messaging — including Gov. Cooper marching without wearing a mask and standing less than 6 feet away from protesters — is really not a good look.

Because of all of these inconsistencies, it will be really hard for a lot of people to trust state officials the next time around.

Stacey Matthews has also written under the pseudonym Sister Toldjah and is a regular contributor to RedState and Legal Insurrection.